Monday, May 31, 2010

The Stay-at-Home Husband

FRASER, Col. - I've been doing this freelancing, work-from-home thing for about 10 weeks now, so this is as good as time as any to take a step back and evaluate.

Generally speaking, it has been a God-send. I have so much extra time to myself, it can be overwhelming at times trying to fill a day.

But that is not to say that being a stay-at-home, quasi-employed husband is not without its stresses. Sure, I can hardly tell the difference between Wednesday and Saturday (though I've worked out a system: If Natalie wakes up first, it is usually a weekday, and if I wake up first, it is usually a weekend), but I still enjoy the rest and relaxation a long weekend like Memorial Day provides.

And that was my not so subtle attempt to provide an excuse to post this picture of my view from my D.C. sister- and brother-in-law's Colorado home as I type this entry.

OK, enjoy that? I am. But back to the task at hand.

Being a stay-at-home, quasi-employed husband, or an Economically Feeble Money-provider (EFM), while offering more time to watch the History International Channel while preparing dinner, adds a bit to our financial stress.

By my estimates, I've earned about the same amount of income had I been employed this whole time, but getting my contractors to reimburse me in a timely manner has proven most difficult and frustrating. Which has caused me to spend parts of my day scouring the competition for freelance opportunities as well as a few other outlets.

The great unknown of when I'll get paid again as well as how much billable work I'll be able to do from week to week and month to month, especially while we're still living in Virginia, as been very stressful.

I'm not looking for sympathy. As I've said, I love not having to drive to an office and deal with people with whom I don't particularly like on a daily basis. I like being able to determine how I spend most of my day. I like being able to go to the post office and being the only customer.

So while I've gained a lot of perks, I think it is easily lost upon others that this newer life doesn't necessarily mean I'm living on Easy Street. Every time I hear, or induce, someone say something to the effect, "But you do nothing all day," I bristle and feel insulted.

I'm sure this stems from several things going on. For one, there is truth to the statement, which probably what makes it the most cutting. But there also is some judging and condescension that I don't appreciate. As I and others have discussed, in the United States at least, it isn't playing second fiddle to a woman's career.

So I don't feel guilty about needing a little R&R get-away in Colorado. And I definitely feel as though I've earned it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fool's Knowledge

With regards to the foreign service, as soon as I think I know something, I realize I'm way off base.

After making it onto the registrar (good job, honey!), initially we thought we'd be called off almost immediately because we heard rumors that due to the increased number of foreign service positions the Obama Administration was creating, there was virtually no waiting list.

Obviously this was not the case. So just as Natalie was deciding whether or not she wanted to try to improve her positioning by taking the oral exam again, we did get the call.

Then I started to share with friends and family all sorts of bad information about where we could wind up (I thought only embassies were in play. There are like 30 potential locations in Mexico, and only one has an embassy.) and how long until we got there.

Even as recently as this week, now that we've been on the inside for about nine months, I'm still learning that once I'm ready to claim I know something, we are wrong. The most recent example was that we were told by somebody who probably ought to know better that everyone being posted in Mexico who wants to take a car with them has to drive there.

That made a little bit of sense, because it seems it is cheaper for the government to pay for gas and hotel rooms than to pay to ship the car. But it stopped making sense about the time you realized that Merida, Mexico, is all the way at the bottom of the country and would be a very long drive. Yet if you get posted right across the border in Guatamala or Belize, then the government will pay to ship your car.

Of course, by now, I've come to accept that very little of what the government does makes sense, so I just accepted that this was another one of those examples that the government's procedures were flawed.

Turns out that there are only about a handful of border cities that the government won't ship a car to, and that Hermosillo isn't one of them. We're still going to drive there, but we were both surprised by this revalation.

It has made me re-assess what I know. What I know is this. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Hermosillo is in Mexico. Mexico borders the United States. We are suppose to live there.

There's also things I ought to know. But having been proven wrong about things I know on almost a daily basis since this process has begun, I don't like to share this information anymore. The biggie here is about when we are leaving. I think I know when we are supposed to move, but because it is dependent on Natalie passing her Spanish exam, and because this date changes more often than D.C. weather, I'm content to say I don't know.

And finally, there are the things I believe to be true, but these beliefs are based more on speculation than anything else.

The lesson is to take information at face value. Even if the information is coming from a reliable source, it could still be inaccurate. About the only thing you can bank on is that isn't a fact until it has already happened.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Diplomatic Immunity

It's Wednesday, so let's do something a little light hearted.

I don't like diplomatic immunity as it seems wholly un-American. Seems a bit like a special right for the privileged few. Which sort of rings of nobility, and unless I'm mistaken, our country has a history of bristling at such concepts.

Anywho, I like Family Guy, and I saw this episode recently, and I think it is hilarious, and vaguely relevant to diplomats. So enjoy.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Home is Where...?

In the touchy-feely times of yesteryear, "Home is where the heart is." If that were true, I'd probably still be in southeast Ohio, but that is neither here nor there.

Because as far as the government is concerned, "Home is where you have domicile."

For many foreign service families, home is where you lived before you came to Virginia for training. Your children went to school in your home district; you still have many relatives there; and you might still own property there.

We are local hires, so one would probably assume that means Virginia or D.C. would be our home. But not so quick.

As of Aug. 1, assuming Natalie's successful completion of her Spanish test, we will be homeless - save for the home we'll occupy in Hermosillo, the one the government owns.

So it would appear we will be without a home. We're fine with that. Natalie's ancestors were gypsies anyway, I think. Uncle Sam won't care too much, because he'll still get our federal income tax. Oh, but wait, some state will be asking for a handout in the way of state income tax because we don't have any ties to Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington state or Wyoming.

I suppose to be fair, it isn't a complete freebie to our "domicile-hosting" state. After all, we will be able to vote in which ever state we choose. So let's round up the candidates.

This has been our home for the past three years
We have Virginia driver's licenses
Our car is registered here
We've been voting here
The company I'm most likely to do most of my work for is here
In all likelihood, during any D.C. tours, we'll probably come back here, too

That is a pretty strong argument for Virginia, though the first point has no bearing on the future, the next three can be easily switched to any other state in which we can establish residence, and the last two points are speculation.

This is where we have the most familial ties
I was born here

For now, that is about the only thing keeping the Bluegrass State in the running, but that is more concrete than Virginia as we can establish residency here before moving to Mexico and then do the car and voting stuff in Kentucky.

This is where our second most of familial ties are
Natalie was born here
We got married here

Essentially the same key points as with Kentucky.

Washington, D.C.:
Natalie's employer is based here
We lived here for two years
We could live here during a D.C. tour

D.C. is much like Virginia, but just with weaker ties, but that could change in a few years.

The tricky thing about claiming a domicile is the issue of intent to live there. It is tricky for us because we don't have any intent to live anywhere other than where the government sends us. We don't intend to do a D.C. tour for at least four years, to ask us if we intend to live in either Virginia or D.C. (or <gasp> Maryland) now doesn't seem like a fair question.

Because choosing a domicile is essentially choosing which state we want to pay income taxes to, at least for our immediate purposes, it seems worthwhile to do another comparison exercise - comparing tax rates for our likely income bracket.

Washington, D.C.: 8%
Kentucky: 6%
Virginia: 5.75%
Ohio: 4.695% or 5.451% (the split occurs in our approximate income range)

So long to "My Old Kentucky Home" and I never liked living in D.C. anyway. Now we just need to decide if all that paperwork and legwork is worth "switching" our domicile from Virginia to Ohio, especially if we end up in the higher tax bracket.

Too bad we just can't build a little hut on the Texas-Mexico border and call that home. Who cares if our heart won't be in the hut, because "Home is where you pay your income taxes (if applicable)" anyway.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

MOH: Morbidly Obressive Heat

It is going to be hot in Hermosillo. I know this. You know this, as I've written before about it. But Tiffy does not know this.

We've had her groomed once to lessen the heat burden she faces here in Virginia. Still, during one of the warmer, sunnier, humidier (new word) days during a walk with Natalie, she stopped during the walk twice to sit and catch her breath.

This caused Natalie to comment that Tiffy has no idea what she is in for, we're going to have to have her groomed a little bit shorter, and even still, she probably is going to die in the Sonoran Desert heat.

To which one of the current employees at the Consulate General Office in Hermosillo said she hopes not because she doesn't think the office can handle another death of a dog.

Another? Yes. Apparently one of the pets died of a heat stroke. The lesson is that we will have to keep a close eye on her during walks to make sure she isn't over exerting herself. Unfortunately, dogs are not smart enough to know they've reached their limits.

We also have decided we will probably need to shorten her walks and compensate by having more of them. Right now, she goes out for at least a half an hour at a time. Maybe we need to cut that in half and walk twice as often. This should help her keep rested while not sacrificing her exercise and treasured time outside. Of course, when it is pushing 120 degrees, she might not enjoy going outside as much as she does now.

Other than having Tiffy groomed properly in preparation of the move, I've started the process of gathering the could-be-necessary paperwork to cross the border with her. This is an inexact science, as I've heard several stories about border patrol not being very demanding about dog paperwork. But just in case we are the one they decide to harass, it is best to be prepared with excessive paperwork.

And finally, Tiffy also had her teeth cleaned, so she'll be the sexiest eunuch dog on the block in Mexico. (Blogging has been very educational for me. For example, while looking up how to spell "eunuch," I learned that this really only applies to human males. About two-thirds the way down this page, there is a list of words for neutered animals. Alas, there is not a word of a spayed dog, so I'm using eunuch anyway; my blog = my rules!)

The above left is a before, and to the right is the after. Now too much excitement, though if you look at her lower set of teeth, you can see she had some discoloration near the gums. The work she had done was not nearly as dramatic as the last time we had her teeth cleaned when we first got her.

Now if only the vet could do something about giving her sweat glands, she would be in better shape for Sonoran heat.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Yesterday around 3:45 p.m., my niece Isabella was born, and it marked the first time I did not make it to the hospital for one of my siblings' children's birth.

To be fair, I would not have made it to the hospital this time regardless if we were in the foreign service or not. This is only the second time I had a niece born since we moved to the D.C. area, and I was able to make it to the hospital in time last year out of a lucky twist of fate - I was able to stop in Cincinnati while returning from an eye surgeon conference in San Francisco just in time to visit my newborn niece and recovering sister-in-law in the hospital.

Moving from southeast Ohio to the D.C. area, a difference of about 350 miles, meant missing out some family events.

This nomadic lifestyle we begin this summer will guarantee I'll miss even more.

I've discussed already how family members view the foreign service decision. Without rehashing too much of it, this is a lifestyle many have a hard time understanding or, in some cases, even accepting. (These are general terms not specific to my family, though some definitely have a hard time understanding.)

And I can see a little better as to why they might feel this way. After all, I've pretty much guaranteed that I will be removing myself from family life even more so than I already have.

I'll mostly be watching my nieces and nephew grow up in pictures and a computer screen. In all likelihood, I won't be there for some seminal moments of their lives as they get older and I'm living in a remote location.

It is easy to think about the sacrifices we are making as we enter the foreign service because they are many. But we should also be aware of the sacrifices are family's also are making, and in all likelihood, they were never consulted about their opinion of these sacrifices. It is something we imposed on them.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Role Reversals

I wouldn't go so far as to list this as an example of cognitive dissonance, but these changes certainly have been shocking to me.

Yesterday, Natalie and I got our visas to work in Mexico. It is official; we are leaving the United States to find work in Mexico. Five years ago, I never would have believed that statement.

I'm also happy to report that last week, after my freelance contract came to an end, I was able to come to terms with my old company to infinitely extend that contract, which, to paraphrase our all-knowing Veep, Joe Biden, "is a big effin deal!" Go read any other foreign service spouse blog, an inevitably there will be multiple posts about finding work.

(Speaking of work, before I left the office, I wrote an article about a young ophthalmologist running for the Republican nomination for senate from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I'm happy to say that Rand Paul, M.D., rode the EF'M bump to a primary victory and is now the front runner to win a seat in the Senate. But Dr. Paul, you'd do well to heed your father's advice: "Be careful, you could get elected.")

But our moving to Mexico to find better paying jobs is not an isolated incident. In January, Ford officials announced they were moving battery-production jobs from Mexico to Michigan, because, you know, the labor is cheaper.

Hermosillo has a Ford plant, though I can't say with any certainty that it is that plant that will be losing jobs. Ford has several Mexican plants. But months ago when I knew even less about Hermosillo than I know today (which still is very little), I said it was a combination of Texas from the cowboy, beef-producing aspect and Detroit from the Ford plant, but, I said the difference was this plant actually made cars, which means Hermosillo = Texatroit.

Well, if the Hermosillo plant is the plant losing jobs to cheap labor, my analogy will be even more true as an industrial city will be losing jobs to outsourcing.

Five years ago, I definitely never ever would have seen that one coming. Role reversals abound in the foreign service.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

EFM: Essential Furnishing - Maps

In my brief experiences, I've reached the conclusion that the foreign service community is obsessed with maps. Maps are essential to the foreign service. So much so that even some blogs incorporate maps in their layout. My knowledge of world geography has never been so honed as it is now.

It started with the bid list. Just as the header of DiploLife's blog depicts (other than the child part anyway), in preparation for the bid list, I went out and bought a huge world map. We spent our first hours with the bid list plotting cities we'd never heard of before. Nouakchott is really a place? And it is a capital city? Hmmm...(And to further prove my growing knowledge of world geography, I spelled that city correctly on the first try!)

A funny sidebar, at least to me. Within days of mapping all of the potential places we could go and hanging it by our door, our refrigerator broke down so we had the apartment come up and fix it. I wish I could have seen the utility man's expression when he saw our map with labels marking many cities in the Middle East, Central America and Mexico. He probably thought we were some sort of government-sponsored anti-terrorism group keeping track of training cells or something.

Flag Day comes and goes, and the next thing we need is a map of Mexico. That hangs above our computer, and I'm getting pretty good at knowing where all of the major cities are. At the same time, Natalie also picked up a world map of all foreign service posts.

About the same time as getting our Mexico map, we got a TomTom, because, as we understand it, it is the only GPS brand that has Mexican maps included without having to pay about $1,000 to upload new ones.

This is by far is my most favorite map that I've come across. A few weeks ago, doing some banking took me to the Capitol South Metro stop, so I thought I'd spend some time at the Library of Congress. I spent some time in the Periodicals section hoping to read an 1844 copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer from one of their special collections, but I didn't get to enjoy that experience. So I thought I'd try my luck at the Maps section where I asked to see maps of Mexico and Texas from 1848, which are hard to come by because Texas wasn't a state yet.

In particular, I wanted to see maps of the American-Mexican War, and the Library assistant was able to provide me the actual battle maps drawn by the American generals. I was giddy in my nerdiness. But while I was most fascinated by the generals' maps, I found the lithographs, like that one done after the Battle of Monterrey, to be the most visually appealing. You probably can't tell from this photo of the map, but there are numbers and a key that tell you what the landmarks in the map are. I think I need to order copies of some of these lithographs from the Library, which is a service it provides.

With our packout day on the horizon, and our AAA membership approaching an end, my task for today is go to AAA to pick up maps of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and Mexico, if they have any. Not just for the drive to post, but we figured if we feel the need to get out of Mexico for a long weekend or something, these will be the areas will be visiting.

Maps - learn to read them and understand them because they are your friends. Sure, they're simple and old and the Internet with its Map Quests and Google Map have a come a long way to replace maps, or at least digitlize them, but a good paper map is key. Besides, everyone in the foreign service is doing it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

First Farewells

When outside stresses mount too high and the blogging community gets too weird, it is time to internalize, move along and get back to writing blog posts like nothing is wrong.

Our move to our first post is quickly arriving despite my best efforts to live in denial. This past weekend did a little to make the realization set in some.

I had my first "farewell."

I decorated the farewell with quotation marks because of course, it isn't real. I'll see my little sister again, but the next time I see her will either be in Mexico or while I'm visiting from Mexico.

Such faux farewells elicit recollections of saying good-bye to high school friends as we moved off to our separate campuses. Yes, we'll see each other again during breaks, but there is the acknowledgement that when we do meet again, we are going to be different people. Other than newly found book knowledge, we also gain new life experiences which changed our sophomoric high-school view of the world.

This summer, I'll have another life-changing experience, obviously, as me move southwest. The next time I see my little sister, I'll be different. I'll likely be tanner and balder, but I'll also have new life experiences from which to draw that probably will change my opinions and way of thinking.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention why my sister came to D.C. over the weekend in the first place.

Because we are moving to Hermosillo this summer, I'll be in a foreign place far from family and my closest friends when I turn 30.

So between that little fact and that I got Natalie with a surprise party for her A-100 swearing-in ceremony, Natalie threw me a surprise 30th birthday party.

Given my birthday is still a ways off, I definitely did not see this coming, and as I climbed into the party bus, it took me a few seconds as the word "surprise" registered and I saw a motley group of familiar faces. And then I proceeded to drink myself stupid and behave in a manner I don't care to recount, so thank you to all who encouraged this ghastly performance, and to my little sister for coming down from Boston and, of course, to my loving wife for putting it altogether.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Unsolved Mystery

I'm sure most all of you are aware by now of the bizarre disappearance of A Daring Adventurer, aka Kolbi, considering other, more-widely read bloggers already commented on the noticeable absence.

We've all come accustomed to letting ADA to all of the hard groundwork for us during the week as she compiled lengthy Friday reports of what every active foreign service blogger was sharing that week. If ADA does not return, this will be a service that will be sorely missed.

But even more than that, ADA made this blogging ring feel more like a community as her weekly roundups did a great job of bringing other bloggers to light but each other's web sites. I think it is safe to say that we all hope whatever happened was only a temporary set back and ADA will be up and running again soon, for purely selfish reasons.

It is worth noting all peculiar the sudden disappearance of such a well respected blog was. Not only did Friday come and go without the weekly update, but the ADA web site is gone altogether including past submissions. As others have noted, her e-mail address, which was connected to that web site, returns e-mails as undeliverable.

What also makes this abrupt ending so bizarre (even more bizarre than the ending of Sopranos) is that no one had any reason to suspect the end of ADA up to Wednesday at least, as she put out her regular call for submissions for the Friday round up. I had exchanged a couple of e-mails with her on Wednesday to talk about learning Mandarin as I had told her I took a few years in college and, as we know, she and her family will be posted in China.

If you are reading this, Kolbi, we hope you and your family are well, and we hope for the return of your blog. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to re-continue blogging, please know we all thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the grand rounds.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Friday Two-fer

Yesterday was a busy day, so you're getting two items for the price of one!

Pack-out Practice
I did our good friend Al (from the cleverly named "You Can Call Me Al" blog) a favor by letting the movers come in his place and start packing while he was at Frustrating Scheduling Inconvenience (FSI). I also did Al the disfavor of not knowing what was going on, and thankfully he arrived before it was too late.

Without going into too much detail, let's just say his summer clothes wouldn't have arrived a little later than his winter clothes, and he is going to Belize in a few weeks. I doubt hilarity would have ensued, but at least he will have three ice scrapers! (Al, three ice scrapers for Belize?)

Being a local hire, I haven't had the benefit of experiencing a pack-out yet, so this was a good trial run for me, and fortunately, Al was able to correct my mistakes.

That said, the obvious flaws of the system were apparent. The terms UAB and HHE are grossly inefficient. The movers just want to get everything in boxes, and with a couple of them working at once against one inexperienced me, I was destined to do a shoddy job. Sorry Al, and I think it only fair that when Natalie and I visit you in Belize, we will pack some winter clothes, too.

Also, don't bother stocking up on aerosol cans and cleaning supplies, but the movers can't pack that stuff.

Hermosillo Group Re-convenes, sort of
Back in February, a sizable contingent headed to Hermosillo met for lunch so we get all spend a little time to get the first greetings out of the way.

Yesterday, we reconvened with a few exceptions. We lost some members who have left already for post, and we picked up a few newbies. And thirdly, one of our members got transferred to Merida. Obviously, life isn't fair.

I was blind-sided a little when one of the new faces announced that she reads EF'M (thanks for the reference Travel Orders.) I've enjoyed blogging so far, but largely, I've been writing to a faceless audience. For me, at least, it becomes more daunting as I meet readers. I think I hold back a little when I know someone can call me out.

If nothing else, at least we appear to have a good group assembling in Hermosillo. It's only been a single meeting in most cases, but everyone seems pleasant enough, and I'm not just saying that because I know at least one might stop by and read this...or am I? You'll never know, now that I might be pulling a few more punches!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

EFM: Escaping Fiscal Madness

Apparently there has been some sort of housing bubble burst the past couple of years.

We haven't been property owners, land hunters, homeowners, etc., so other than noticing a few more "For Sale" signs during Tiffy's excretion expeditions, and a lot of news coverage, the housing market has not affected us.

That kind of changed yesterday. We received a notice from Charles E. Smith's henchmen stating there is a situation with our lease for which we need to meet with someone in management to discuss.

So we go down to the lobby and meet with a manger fresh out of college who also was visibly nervous. We go into an office, and he starts into an explanation that there is going to be a significant rent bump for us when our lease ends and it is because more people are moving into apartments to get out of the housing market, etc.

He was flushed; he was struggling with his words and computer program has he was looking for the data pertinent to our lease. So I nudge Natalie to tell her to put an end to this and tell him we're leaving anyway. Natalie, the sadist, was content to watch him squirm a little longer. I think he was relieved to find out we didn't really care about the rent increase.

We have been fortunate in that our lease is scheduled to end right about the same time we are suppose to move. Obviously, I didn't plan this out because it never would have worked this well. And if Natalie were to come up short of scoring a 3/3 on her Spanish exam and we need to stay a month longer, the Smith henchman agreed to keep our current rent rate in tact for us.

So what would the damage have been if we were not in the foreign service? Well, we probably would have commenced a search for a new apartment. They were going to up our rate by $300 per month ($400 for a new resident). Taking utilities into account, we would have been paying in the neighborhood of $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom, 1,800ish sq. ft. apartment in Crystal City.

To put this into perspective, that is about $48k per year for shelter. That is a salary, or more, for many people! Before I moved to D.C., I was renting a trailer in southeast Ohio, with two bedrooms, one bath and a large kitchen, for $365 per month.

Suddenly a free house in Hermosillo, or anywhere in the world for that matter, is very appealing (thank you, taxpayers!).

Monday, May 10, 2010

EFM: Enjoying Frigid Mornings

This morning in Crystal City as I took Tiffy on her excretion expedition, it was about May!

And this on the heels of a weekend that was in the 60s with 100mph winds, give or take 80mph.

Natalie is pissed off. She wants summer to get here. But I'm loving it.

Sure, it is a little cold out this morning, but I'm enjoying it while I can. As our friends over at Simmons Says pointed out last week, it already has cleared 100 in Monterrey. And according to this picture from wikitravel, which was taken at 10 p.m. in May, I can expect that, or worse, in Hermosillo. Ugh.

I can deal with living in an isolated city such as Hermosillo. I can deal with living in a land in which a minority of the population speak English. I can deal with the whole job issue. But I don't do heat very well.

So of course Hermosillo is in the Sonoran Desert.

Constrastingly, Natalie loves heat; she can't get enough of it. For example, and this is a true story, a few years ago we were visiting her cousins, who are loyal EF'M readers by the way, in the Dallas area in August. (Actually, more of the Bryan Station area, but I figure most know where Dallas is).

It was a cozy 80 degrees there...inside the house. And after spending five minutes outside, that 80-degree-air-conditioned home felt chilly.

So we went to a water park one afternoon, and the heat index was something to the tune of 115F. And Natalie had goosebumps! How is that even physically possible? Goosebumps in 115F? Granted, we were about two stories up to go down a water slide and our bodies were wet, but still.

Yeah, Natalie is excited for the Hermosillo heat. Me, not so much, so Mother Nature, feel free to hold off on summer in D.C. for a few more weeks, or longer.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Land of Extreme Rating Scales

We haven't been to our first post yet, but I'm beginning to pick up on the foreign service being a place of extremities. There is no room for grey area here. You're either all the way in or all the way out.

My first experiences of this new life philosophy is the bidding process. To recap, I'm not a huge fan of the bidding process.

To simplify, let's just say we had 100 posts to bid on. Then we divide those posts into three categories: eh, uh and oh. For example, in response to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I said, "Eh, no thanks." How about Manama, Bahrain? "Uh, maybe." Though I would spend all day everyday singing the Muppet's song, "Manamana," which might push this post into the next category. This is the "Oh, sign me up!" category.

So there isn't much room for waffling. All in or all out.

This has been reinforced during Natalie's language training process. She has periodic reviews in which they tell her where she stands and how this projects for her testing day. These categories also seem a bit extreme, too.

For example, there is the You-already-know-the-language-well-enough-to-pass category, which really is only there to taunt people because even native speakers seldom fall into this category. No, this is true; I've heard of native speakers only scoring a 2-plus in speaking, 2-plus in reading. (I'll talk a little more about the flawed grading scale further down.)

Next down the list is the You-are-likely-to-pass category followed by the, There-is-a-50%-chance-you-pass-or-fail category. Finally, there is the You-won't-pass, which is paradoxically not a death sentence. I've heard of people who fit this bill during review, yet passed the test. Go figure.

I have a theory about this grading scale. They tell people what they think they need to hear to inspire them to keep working. Is this person not trying that hard; tell them they are going to fail so they up the ante. Is this person a little insecure; tell them they are on pace to pass to encourage them.

I hope that my theory is right, otherwise, this scale seems rather nonsensical. Especially considering her first review period was so early on, it is impossible to use that as any sort of indicator of how some will do other than stress the foreign service officer a lot.

So what is a passing grade? For Spanish, it is a 3 on reading and speaking on a scale of 0 to 5. Here is one place, however, where they lessen the extreme grading scale system a bit, though I don't know if this was the right place to do.

For their solution to create a little wiggle room, the hot shots at Frustrating Scales Inc. (FSI) added a plus system that defies explanation. Can anyone tell me the difference among a 2, 2-plus and 3? Hell, the difference between a 2 and a 3 are borderline insignificant at best. And if you feel too limited by rating 0 to 5 that plus/minus became necessary, why not just stretch the grading scale to 0 to 10?

To come full circle, the plus system addition would have been nice for the bidding list. On our three-point scale, Maputo = Hermosillo. Going back to our theoretical 100-post bid list, Maputo would have been in our top five while Hermosillo was probably more around 30. In our top third, but definitely not equal.

Friday, May 7, 2010

EFM: Enjoying Final Moments

You have to go back a few posts to recall the first time I mentioned our D.C. bucket list. This is the list of things we want to do before we leave in July for Mexico.

Lately, we've been adding several check marks to that list. For example, while not a D.C. attraction, getting to go the Kentucky Derby was on my list of things to do before leaving because I imagine it will get a lot harder to attend after we begin moving around the world.

So while we refer to it as our D.C. bucket list, it is more of our United States bucket list. And it is worth adding that we realize it is not like we are going to leave this country for ever, but we are in a good position now to do some of our activities and see some of these attractions. After all, we are still young and childless (sorry, Tiffy, you don't count). If we put some of this stuff off now, who is to say we will ever get a second chance.

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie took something off her list by herself as well, though I was invited. I didn't go, for the obvious reason that I think my wife is crazy.

More recently, we added a new activity to our bucket list and marked it off at about the same time.

Being a history nut, I've been to Ford's Theatre before, and if you haven't been, you need to check out the museum in the basement. It has an incredible collection - one of the better kept secrets in D.C. as it is not really nearby many other attractions. I've also been to the Petersen House a couple of times, and while seeing the bed Lincoln died on is fascinating, and it is wonderful they managed to preserve the house, it is kind of a dud.

But something I've kind of wanted to do, but then forgot about it until I saw an ad on the Metro a month or so ago, was to see a performance inside the theater. So for Natalie's birthday, she got two tickets to see the musical, Little Shop of Horrors.

The performance itself was very entertaining, and I would love to spend 15 minutes talking to the guys who manipulated the Audrey II puppet, which ended up about the size of our car by show's end.

(While the play's message is that the desire to have fame, fortune and love can lead otherwise good people to do terrible things, the play was introduced by ABC's movie critic, Arch Campbell, who reminded us that this play also teaches us to be good to our plants. Strangely enough, the final song in the musical is "Don't Feed the Plants," but that is beside my point. I just found it kind of funny that I'm currently thinking about chopping my plant down to a smaller size so I can move out of here to some place else where it has a chance to survive.)

But seeing a performance in Ford's Theatre is just part of the experience. From our seat, we also had a great view of President Lincoln's box, which still is draped with Civil War era flags like it was during his final visit. During the intermission, I spent the whole time measuring the jump Booth took from the Presidential box to the stage, and it is no wonder he broke his leg. That was a rather reckless jump, easily 20 feet, though the story goes that his boot got caught in one of the flags causing him to fall awkwardly.

It is hard to imagine what that night must have been like in that theater. But seeing a live performance in "America's most famous theater" is definitely a worthwhile activity while in D.C., and I'm glad we managed to add and check this event on our ever-shortening D.C./U.S. bucket list.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cinco de Mayo and Thoughts about Holidays

Oh, you just have to love Americans. We are so good at hijacking other nation's holidays and turning them into American drinking holidays.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did have to search Cinco de Mayo on Wikipedia to get an explanation of what the holiday is about. All I knew is that it wasn't Mexican Independence Day, and it was about beating the French. (Seriously though, if every country had a holiday every time they beat the French, would we get any work done? Sorry, France, that was a cheap shot, but sometimes I just can't help myself. And I'm acutely aware of your role in the American War for Independence.)

(Another side note, and I'll move on. Americans not knowing why Cinco de Mayo is a holiday is one thing. But I'm always disturbed by the number of Americans who don't know why we celebrate July 4th. Yeah, they got the independence thing down, but you'd be surprised how many people think that is the day we beat the British or began the war with the British. And for any readers who think that, I'll spare you the embarrassment of looking it up and telling you it is the day 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, which told Britain we think we are our own country. The war had already began and wouldn't end for another seven years.)

I won't rehash all that is on Wikipedia, because that is a pretty good explanation there, but the really short version is that Mexico wasn't paying its debts to other countries; France decided to invade to get its money; France lost the first battle of that war on May 5 at Puebla - a battle the French should have won; but the French rallied and marched to Mexico City; America told France to take a hike and they left. Thus, we drink on May 5.

I find it amusing that, according to Wikipedia, Cinco de Mayo is not really celebrated much in Mexico outside the city of Puebla. Until you reach the border. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is akin to St. Patrick's Day.

Cinco de Mayo also is celebrated by the consulate office in Hermosillo. In fact, there isn't much they don't celebrate at that office. I counted 21 holidays in 2010. One of the dirty little secrets is that the consulate is closed on both American and Mexican holidays.

The benefit of moving to a Catholic country - state-recognized holy day holidays. We get Holy Thursday and Good Friday (the Thursday and Friday before Easter Sunday, for the non-Christians out there) and All Soul's Day (Day of the Dead) on top of Christmas.

The benefit of moving to a country that has fought many wars - battle-related holidays. There is Cinco de Mayo, the Anniversary of the Revolution and Mexican Independence Day. That is six extra holidays so far. Then add in the Mexican Labor Day, Constitution Day, Mother's Day and Benito Juarez's Birthday - the namesake of Ciudad Juarez...he must be rolling over in his grave - and that is 10 bonus Mexican holidays on top of three we share with Mexico - Christmas and New Year's Day and New Year's Eve - and the eight U.S. holidays (because the government shuts down for MLK Jr. Day, President's Day and Columbus Day while the rest of the country works) and that is 21 days off.

(Sorry, but another item caught my attention and deserves another side bar. Mexico doesn't celebrate Columbus Day. Instead, they have Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race), and this is the day observed by many South American and Central American countries. According to my favorite resource, Wikipedia, this day "is seen as a counter to Columbus Day. It is used to resist the arrival of Europeans to the Americas and is used to celebrate the native races." I guess it must have been on a weekend in 2010 or on the same day as Columbus Day because it was not listed on the consulate office's list of holidays.)

Of course, then there also are weekends, earned vacation time and sick days. wonder people get frusterated with government excesses.

Though, as Natalie is quick to point out, every day is a holiday for me. And I didn't even have to beat the French!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Weekend Recount

I usually try to keep my entries within the scope of what life is like as a foreign spouse. After all, if this were just the life of David L., then no one would stop by to read.

But I'm going to break that guideline today just to rehash a bit of the weekend, so feel free to move along and come by tomorrow if this isn't a good way to kill 10 minutes of a Monday. No offense taken.

When I left you all last, I was going to the Kentucky Derby, and Natalie was preparing to walk 39.3 miles for the Avon Walk. We both survived.

Though Natalie was a little more battered than I was. Here, she and her sister, Mindy, recoup after the first day of the walk on these foot-massagers.

They finished on Sunday and it was a great tribute to their mother.

While she was doing this, I was taking in my first Kentucky Derby experience.

Oops. That is actually also from Natalie's walk. The closest I got to seeing a horse was this:

The guy wearing red in the center of the picture is a jockey on a horse. I don't think this is one of the racers, but it could have been. But I didn't go to the race hoping to see horses. I've seen horses. I've been to horse races before. This was about experiencing the atmosphere of one great bit of Americana and probably the most important weekend in my home state.

For the record, I didn't win anything, but I have only myself to blame as I broke two rules about gambling.

The first is to go with your gut feeling. The day before I left, my friend already in Louisville asked me to print out a list of the horses, odds and gate. I went to do this, but my printer ran out of ink, and I was very busy, so I just glanced and made a few mental notes. When I met up with him in Louisville, I told him what happened and added that one of the horses with better odds was posted in Gate 4, which traditionally has been a very good starting gate for Derby runners.

Did I use this little bit of info when I wagered? Nope. Instead, I bet on horse number 5, Line of David (had to go with my name, after all). Instead, horse 4, Super Saver, won the Derby. My friend wagered $2 on Super Saver to finish first or second, and walked away with $17.50 on that bet.

While at Churchill Downs, I bought a giant pretzel for a vendor, and said I throw in a tip if they gave me their advise on the race. The woman said she really didn't have any thoughts about the horses. But when I pushed a second time, she asked for the program, looked at the listings, and pointed at horse number 2, Ice Box. I thanked her, gave her the tip and went to go wager on Line of David and made my second mistake. My second horse (I only get on two of them) was to follow the advise of an ESPN analyst who liked horse number 15, Mission Impazible.

Instead, Ice Box finished in second. My error - asking for someone's advice with no intention of reallying listening. Otherwise, I could have come home with a little money in my pocket. In our group of 10, only the small $2 wager won any money, so it wasn't like I was the big loser of our group. In fact, one guy bet on 10 different horses (I believe 20 raced), and he lost on all of them.

It was a great expierence, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to partake in the event. I'll wrap things up with a few images from the trip.